This week marks the 41st Anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the United States Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion on January 22, 1973. Since that time over 55 million babies have been aborted in the United States. That’s about 8 times the number of people who live in Indiana (my state) and over a sixth of the total current population in the United States.
Abortion is a polarizing issue in our culture: a moral, political, and religious dividing line that separates ethicists, citizens, and even professing Christians. And while many of my readers value the sanctity of human life and believe (as I do) that abortion is the unjust murder of a human being, it’s all too easy for us to caricature people of the opposing position as monsters who lack any moral conscience whatsoever. Even calling abortion murder will sound (to many) like inflammatory rhetoric that generates more heat than light.
The problem, of course, is that while such statements may galvanize support from folks who already agree with us, it does nothing to actually engage the thinking of people who believe abortion is morally permissible. To do that we have to interact with the moral arguments pro-choice people appeal to in defense of their position.
Consider one example.[i] An American philosopher named Mary Anne Warren wrote a well-known article defending “The Moral and Legal Use of Abortion.” Warren acknowledges that if an unborn fetus is a full-fledged human person then abortion is morally wrong. But the crux of her argument is that fetuses in fact are not persons and therefore do not have the same moral rights persons.
So how does Warren define “person”? Well, she actually doesn’t give a formal definition, but suggests a list of “the traits which are most central to the concept of personhood, or humanity.” She suggests five of these traits – (1) consciousness, (2) reasoning, (3) self-motivated activity, (4) the capacity to communicate, and (5) the presence of self-concepts and self-awareness – and argues that fetuses lack them all. “I consider this claim to be so obvious,” says Warren, “that I think anyone who denied it, and claimed that a being which satisfied none of [these traits] was a person all the same, would thereby demonstrate that he had no notion at all of what a person is.”[ii]
In other words, if personhood consists in these capacities, and a fetus has none of these capacities, then terminating a fetus in abortion is not equivalent to killing a human person.
So, how should we respond? First off, we could question this particular list of characteristics. While it’s true that these traits do characterize many, even most, mature human beings it is not obvious that these are necessary traits for personhood. Just because a human being lacks some of these traits does not mean he or she is therefore not a person. (It’s also not obvious that unborn babies lack all of these characteristics.)
But more than that, Warren’s argument, if true, proves too much. She says one must have certain capacities to qualify as a person, and when these capacities (and therefore personhood) are lacking, it is not morally wrong to take its life. But this reasoning could be used to justify not only abortion, but also infanticide and the termination of people with certain disabilities. In fact, another philosopher, Peter Singer, actually goes this far, reasoning from similar presuppositions that there are situations when killing an infant “is not morally equivalent to killing a person. Very often it is not wrong at all.”[iii]
You don’t have to believe in God or subscribe to Christianity to think that this is not only morally objectionable, but also decidedly inhumane.
But a deeper problem with Warren’s (and Singer’s) definitions of personhood is that they place the inherent worth and value (and thus right to life) in a human beings capacities – capacities of consciousness, rationality, inclination, activity, communication, and self-awareness.
But unique as they are, these capacities are not the most unique things about human beings, nor are they the basis of one’s personhood, value, or human rights. The most unique thing about human beings is their distinct relationship to God as their Creator. Human beings are made imago Dei – in the image of God. And the distinctive thing about that relationship is that it depends not on our capacities of consciousness, rationality, or whatever, but on something much deeper and more fundamental to our existence: being known by God.
We see this in Psalm 139, where the psalmist sees his life in terms of being known, cared for, and loved by God. In verses 13-16, we read:
“For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother's womb. 14 I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. 15 My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place. When I was woven together in the depths of the earth, 16 your eyes saw my unformed body. All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.”
John Stott, in his excellent book Issues Facing Christians Today, shows that the psalmist not only views God as Creator, but also sees continuity in his own personhood as he surveys his existence in four stages:
(i) the past (v. 1);
(ii) the present (v. 2-3);
(iii) the future (v. 10);
(iv) the prenatal stage (v. 13); yet in all four stages he refers to himself as “I” – having the same personal identity as a grown man, writing this psalm, as he had as fetus yet unborn.[iv]
The Scriptures lead us to define personhood not in terms of our capacities at any given point in our lives, but in terms of our unique relationship to the Creator who knows and loves us from beginning to end. Our value is based not on what we can do (capacities) but on whose we are (grace).
To quote Stott again:
“The sovereign initiative of God in creating and loving is the biblical understanding of grace. Some Christians decline to attribute personhood to the newly conceived embryo because as yet it has no brain to sustain either self-supervision or conscious relationships. But supposing the vital relationship which confers personhood on the fetus is God’s conscious, loving commitment to him or her, rather than his or hers to God? Such a one-sided relationship is seen in parents who love their child, and commit themselves to his or her care and protection, long before that child is able to respond. And a unilateral initiative is what makes grace to be grace. It is, in fact, God’s grace which confers on the unborn child, from the moment of its conception, both the unique status which it already enjoys and the unique destiny which it will later inherit.”[v]
And this is the difference between Christianity and other systems of morality. Our value, worth, and rights as persons don’t ultimately depend on our capacities or what we can do, but on our Creator and Redeemer and what he has done for us. Human lives are sacred not because of inherent capacities or functions, but because God has created them, knows them, and sustains them. And that means every person – prenatal, infant, child, adult, whether healthy, disabled, or elderly – is precious.
This post was written for Christianity.com.
This post was written for Christianity.com.
[i]I’m grateful for the help of my friend and fellow pastor Luke Potter in both pointing me to Warren’s article and helping me construct this response to her arguments.
[ii] Mary Anne Warren, “On the Moral and Legal Status of Abortion,” The Monist, Vol. 57, No. 4, 1973.
[iii] Peter Singer, “Taking Life: Humans,” Excerpted from Practical Ethics, 2nd edition, Cambridge, 1993, pp. 175-217. http://www.utilitarianism.net/singer/by/1993----.htm
[iv]Stott, Issues Facing Christians Today, chapter 14.
[v]Stott, pp. 402-403.
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